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Only a whole-system rethink will solve the attendance crisis

In 1997, in an address on global poverty, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Almost 30 years on, those words still have a particular resonance and a relevance for millions of families around the world, including many here in the UK. 

The distressing reality is that too many children and young people are not able to benefit from the liberating power of learning because they don’t feel they belong at school or because school is not meeting their needs. 

School should be a welcoming place for all children, celebrating every child’s talents and championing individuality and difference. But that simply isn’t the case. Disabled children and those with special educational needs (SEN) made up over on-third of all severely absent children in 2021/22, and school absence rates are higher for children experiencing mental health difficulties than their peers. 

Alongside the issue of persistent absence, we should not forget the 40,000 or more children who are neither on the school roll nor getting a suitable education at home or elsewhere. In our 2018 report Children Missing Education, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) was one of the first organisations to highlight the risks for children of missing education and the underlying causes. 

Symptoms of a system in crisis

Too often, valid and understandable behaviours expressed by disabled children and young people or children and young people with SEN trying to communicate their unmet needs are treated as refusing to participate or deliberately challenging authority.  

Sadly, these children often do not receive appropriate out-of-school support, which further compounds their exclusion by creating a greater sense of isolation. From the early years through to post-16 education, the SEND system is in crisis and urgently requires investment as well as a cultural shift towards inclusion. 

Overall, increasing and consistently high levels of school absence are symptoms of a school system that is not identifying and adequately addressing children’s additional needs. Absenteeism has a compounding effect on a child’s wellbeing and sense of belonging – and not surprisingly their educational outcomes worsen as absence increases over time.  

I am very grateful today to appear at the Nuffield Foundation conference and Place2Be’s persistent absence roundtable to discuss the issue of school absence and some possible solutions. Here are some of the main ways forward as I see.  

A whole-school approach to wellbeing 

We will never truly tackle this problem unless all mainstream schools are resourced and supported so they can adapt to the needs of all children and prevent absenteeism and exclusion.  

We can sometimes see wellbeing and attainment as at odds with each other. In fact, wellbeing is the foundation of educational outcomes, and Ofsted inspections should much more closely reflect this fact.  

And when mainstream education isn’t the solution for a particular child, we need alternative provision that has ambition for the children attending these settings, so their achievements are a springboard to greater outcomes.

Creating a sense of belonging 

Addressing absenteeism requires us to look deeper into the root causes, one of which is the lack of a strong sense of belonging in schools.

Our Belonging Matters programme involves working in partnership with ten London schools to develop, implement and evaluate a whole-school approach to ‘belonging’. It’s a groundbreaking initiative aimed at fostering truly inclusive and supportive school environments for all students, and particularly for disabled pupils and pupils with SEN.  

In education settings, belonging translates into practice as the creation of an environment within which every pupil feels valued, respected and supported. A school that prioritises a sense of belonging fosters friendly and fair teacher-pupil relationships, ensures pupils are satisfied with their social networks, encourages participation in extracurricular activities and supports a positive climate characterised by fairness, safety and inclusivity. 

Key findings from our collaboration with Goldsmiths reviewing the literature on this topic emphasise the profound impact of belonging on pupil outcomes. These include improved academic performance, better attendance and enhanced mental health.

Through audits, action plans, surveys and training, our programme aims to equip schools with the tools they need to create such environments. We think it can point to a way forward at much greater scale.  

Changing the system 

To get children back in school, we should be tough on the causes of persistent absence rather than on them and their parents.

This means looking at the entire system that supports children with SEN and disabilities and with mental health problems. It means investing in a system of SEND support that can unlock inclusion and transforming of child and adolescent mental health support. And it means properly resourcing schools to emphasise pupil wellbeing so wider systems of support are less likely to be needed in the first place.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, despite an overall increase in school funding since 2010, spending per pupil over the past 14 years has stood still. Meanwhile, National Foundation for Educational Research data shows that recruitment of new teachers in secondary schools since last September has only reached half of the government’s yearly target.

Put simply, school absence is one very visible symptom of a deeper crisis in the services and systems that support children and young people.  

In a recent Local Government Association White Paper, it was estimated that councils face funding gaps of £2.3 billion in 2025/26 and £3.9 billion in 2026/27 just to maintain services at their current levels.

Whoever forms the next government must address these root causes so that all children, regardless of their abilities, can thrive in an inclusive educational setting.  

Because good education is the epitome of progress for every family.

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